The Worst of Times/The Best of Times: America in the time of pandemic

by Andy Barlow

March 30, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has paradoxically brought out the worst and the best in the United States.

The ineptitude, narcissism and avarice of the Trump Administration is to be expected. It becomes clearer every day that Trump does not care a bit about the hundreds of thousands or even millions of people who will die as a result of his mishandling of one of the biggest crises in the history of the United States.

But the United States’ vulnerabilities are not caused by Trump: they are structural problems baked into the DNA of modern American society. Here I discuss four of those vulnerabilities: racism, neo-liberal capitalism, the disinvestment in public health, and the conditions of American families.

Racism is Trump’s language but it is not Trump’s creation. It has always been America’s Achilles heel. American racism has consistently undermined democracy throughout its history. It has distorted and undermined economic growth, and it has produced the developed world’s most extreme inequality.  American racism left the U.S. defenseless against the coronavirus at the point that it could have been stopped. The novel virus was first identified on December 31, 2019 in Wuhan. And while the second largest economy in the world shut down to deal with the virus (successfully, it should be noted), only a few epidemiologists in the U.S. raised the alarm. The American (indeed Western) reaction was that it was a “Chinese virus,” so who cares? By the time the U.S. began to respond, it was too late: community spread of the coronavirus had already begun even while Trump was stopping travel from China to the U.S. (Indeed, evidence in Seattle suggests the coronavirus might have been in the community since November 2019). Even now, when the United States has far more cases than China, Trump continues to whip up xenophobic hatred of Asians for “bringing it here,” which endangers Asian Americans and leaves the whole country less able to understand and deal with the pandemic.

American racism also dooms millions of people of color to far higher levels of coronavirus exposure and mortality. The people infected on the Princess Diamond were mostly Filipino and Latinx ship workers. The supermarket checkers and stockers, house cleaners, non-professional hospital workers, and the service workers in general who have to keep working despite their likely exposure to the coronavirus are disproportionately non-white. People of color have less access to health care and are far likelier to suffer from pre-existing conditions because of the ravages of racism. And both of these factors predict who will die from Covid-19. The most endangered people in America for coronavirus exposure—those incarcerated in America’s prisons, jails and immigration detention facilities—are mostly people of color. Undocumented Latinx people face especially grave perils, as they are often the ones who are working at jobs where they exposed to the virus yet fear going to hospitals because of their lack of health insurance and their lack of trust in hospitals’ potential cooperation with ICE.

The United States’ second major structural Covid-19 vulnerability is the impact of neo-liberalism on its economy. The U.S. economy has always been the most lightly regulated and taxed in the developed world. But over the last thirty years, neo-liberals have steadily dismantled business regulations and social programs. In this environment, American businesses have operated with almost no plans beyond the profits they seek to make in a single quarter. To put it mildly, no business had planned for (in economic terms, “priced in”) an economic crisis such as the one triggered by this pandemic. And now the bill is coming due. The disruptions in business activities caused by months of sheltering in place have already produced 10 million newly unemployed Americans. Worse, the drop off of consumer demand and the likely permanent closure of millions of small businesses—especially restaurants and other services—as well as the disruption of global supply chains will produce longer-term economic pain. Even worse, unregulated American corporations are virtually all heavily in debt and dangerously over-exposed as they borrowed excessively in anticipation of the continuation of the economic expansion that had started in 2009. Neo-liberalism has certainly multiplied the economic pain the U.S. will suffer.

The third structural Covid-19 vulnerability is the weaknesses of the United States’ public health system. Indeed, to even call what exists a public health system is a big stretch. The U.S. is so far failing at every stage (isolation, mitigation, treatment) of this pandemic whereas other nations, especially Asian nations with the real-life experience of having dealt with SARS-1 epidemic in 2003, have been very successful. Indeed, the U.S.  already has more Covid-19 cases than any other nation and the rate of coronavirus infection is still rising. Far more than Trump’s ineptitude, the problems in the U.S. are the result of a long neglect of public health, most obviously the absence of a national health system—the U.S. being the only developed country without one. This problem has been greatly exacerbated by the United States’ four decade-long preference for mass incarceration rather than health care (very much part of the problem of racism discussed above). Put simply, the U.S. never developed the tools to address a pandemic. Even worse, some public health officials had long warned top government officials of this vulnerability, and nothing was done about it despite two ‘exercises’ that predicted the failures we are now experiencing.  And the failures are too long to list: the incredible lag time before social distancing was practiced, the lack of screening test kits, health care workers dealing with the pandemic without face masks, nitrile gloves or sterile gowns, very sick people dying in hospital hallways, the lack of ventilators, etc. Even with the Affordable Care Act in place, millions of Americans worry that their health insurance will be inadequate if they get sick, an anxiety that will contribute to higher mortality rates.

The fourth structural Covid-19 vulnerability is the precarious situation for many families in the United States. Decades of neo-liberal policies have left many American families in a precarious condition. The depression of wages over the last forty years has required families to work more hours for an ever-declining standard of living while public benefits have been steadily retracted by corporations and governments alike. The sudden collapse of the service sector during the Covid response has left the most vulnerable workers, tens of millions of them if you include the workers and their families, without incomes of any kind while rents and food bills and medical expenses pile up. At the extreme, the half a million Americans who are homeless are forced to live in conditions that all but guarantee exposure to the coronavirus.  And isolation and the shelter in place requirements during this emergency have increased the vulnerability of women and LGBTQI people, especially those who are exposed to domestic abuse.

These are indeed the worst of times, a situation produced not just by Trump but by decades of neo-liberal policies and America’s long-term embrace of white supremacy.

But there is another side to the American response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Crises always force people and nations to re-examine what has long been taken for granted. And it is these responses that are cause for hope.

Neighbors are helping neighbors with shopping and other chores. Friends and family are checking in with one another more frequently than before. The heroism of American workers—nurses, doctors, hospital staffers, restaurant workers, delivery people, supermarket checkers and stockers, teachers, social workers, etc.—is now being recognized.  People in Oakland are sewing badly needed masks for medical workers. Chinese Americans, themselves victims of right-wing racism in this pandemic, are sending medical equipment to Seattle hospitals. Signs are hung over freeways to honor “essential workers.” (Canadians have gone one better: Vancouver residents go to their windows during hospital shift changes and shout encouragement to medical workers.) Many upper middleclass families are paying the people who cleaned their homes throughout the shutdown.   A (very) few landlords have announced that they are not collecting rent from tenants (families and businesses) for the duration of the shutdown. A new working-class militancy is flickering into consciousness. Workers employed by Instacart (a food delivery service) have gone on strike demanding better protective training and work conditions knowing that they have public support for their demands. So have workers at Amazon’s JFK8 Fulfillment Center in New York. Families left without incomes are organizing rent strikes in New York City and Oakland. All in all, one of the most significant responses to the Covid-19 pandemic has been this re-awakening sense of community in a nation where individualism and greed were celebrated as the neo-liberal ideals.

One of the pillars of modern American racism is the enormous system of mass incarceration. Some jurisdictions are responding to the threat of Covid-19 infection by depopulating their jails and juvenile detention centers. This is a startling development that actually advances policies that prison abolitionists have long advocated but seemed a distant dream just a month ago! Immigrant rights organizations are working hard to alert Americans to the failure of the current American bailout plans to address the needs of undocumented people or to empty the Federal detention centers that now imprison over 50,000 people.

American neo-liberalism is under full assault from the Democrats in Congress. The $2 trillion bailout plan written and adopted in two weeks was the largest government economic intervention in history. The initiative is deeply flawed by its method of handing out money to billions to corporations and hundreds of dollars to American workers. But there can be no doubt that a SECOND multi-trillion-dollar bailout plan will be needed. And, increasingly,  Democrats are becoming clear that the next plan must do what ALL of the other developed nations have done: pay workers their salaries during the shutdown and guarantee them their jobs at the end of the shutdown, a guarantee that will then focus corporate bailouts on jobs recovery, not just ripping off the taxpayers yet again! Many people are also demanding all rents and mortgages forgiven during this emergency, and all Covid-related health expenses be covered by the government. Los Angeles has already decided to require expanded sick leave for workers in big businesses located in that city, for example.

The deficiencies of the American public health response to the pandemic are now widely acknowledged, and governments at every level are racing to patch together a public health system. It is possible that by the end of this pandemic, a real national public health system might actually exist in the United States for the first time in its history. The only question at that point will be whether or not to keep it going. This is a far cry from the debates over whether or not the U.S. should have a universal single payer system that gripped the Democrats less than a month ago.

The plight of working families cannot go unnoticed. Too many people in this country are experiencing not just a pandemic but real economic displacement. The pressure on the Federal government to guarantee wages and jobs and to pay for peoples’ Covid-19-related health care is already mounting. Some progressive cities (including Oakland) have already barred all evictions and instituted a rent freeze for the duration of the crisis. But this is not enough, and the U.S. will soon feel pressured to institute the protections of working families that have already been made by every other developed nation, even Britain.

       Perhaps the most hopeful development of this new era is that a majority of Americans are beginning to understand a fundamental principle of public health: that to protect ourselves, we must protect everyone. Younger neighbors offer to shop for more vulnerable elders. The large majority of populations ordered to shelter in place have done so. Despite the idiots (covidiots?) who cavort at the beaches in SoCal and Florida, most young adults who (wrongly as it turns out) believe that Covid-19 can’t kill them still practice social isolation to protect elders in their families and communities. Volunteers have been showing up in droves at homeless encampments. People have donated money for hospital medical supplies (a shameful need if there was ever one!) and have started GoFundMe accounts for myriad out of work friends and family members.

       This spirit, the slow and painful stitching together of the beloved community, is the source of all hope, the possibility for the redemption of America. If, out of this pandemic, America has learned to care for its sickest, and has rejected the ruinous lies that racism and neo-liberalism put on this country, if America has learned that our strength lies in our diverse communities, and that we are better together than apart, then this crisis and the terrible loss of lives and the misery it has created will one day be seen as the moment America awoke.

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